49ers Building Around Defense
by Glenn Dickey
Oct 31, 2005

FOR THE first time, the 49ers showed yesterday that they have a defensive core they can build around for future success.

What coaches talk of as “effort” or “intensity” shows up most clearly on defense, positively or negatively. It showed up in the latter category for the 49ers the week before, when they were torched by a Washingon Redskins team that is only a little above average. My conclusion after that disaster was that Mike Nolan had lost his team.

Yesterday, apparently fired up by an outburst by Bryant Young at practice during the week, the 49er defenders looked like an entirely different group. Playing with great energy and enthusiasm, as witnessed by their emotional outbursts after big plays – Anthony Adams sprinting to the sidelines after a three-and-out in the first half, Julian Peterson leaping high to exchange high-fives with Kwane Harris after a fourth quarter fumble recovery – the 49ers shut down the Tampa Bay offense. Only a pass to Joey Galloway that turned into a 78-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter marred their effort, and Galloway has, after all, burned a few defenses in his career.

The key was stopping the run, which they did magnificently. The Bucs had controlled games with their running, but the 49ers held top rookie running back Cadillac Williams to 20 yards in 13 carries, and the Bucs gained only 43 yards in 20 carries, overall.

That forced the Bucs to pass, and, with injured starter Brian Griese out, the Bucs don’t have a reliable quarterback. Coach Jon Gruden doesn’t like Chris Simms, and Simms’ play yesterday confirmed Gruden’s judgment. Simms often panicked under pressure, throwing ill-advised passes. He threw two interceptions and the 49ers had a shot at intercepting three others. Even when he wasn’t pressured, Simms threw some passes that only a gopher could have caught.

But the 49ers secondary also deserves credit for making Simms’ day a long one. This group is coming along nicely – and surprisingly well, after injuries to starters Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph. At corner, Bruce Thornton has been a great find as a waiver wire pickup. Shawntae Spencer, a 2004 draft pick, has been solid at the other corner. In the blowout by the Redskins, Spencer seemed to give up on a long pass route that became a touchdown, but once again, that shows the problem with making evaluations without knowing what had been called. The 49ers had been in a “cover 2” defense, in which the corner is supposed to take the receiver part way and then hold up to guard against passes underneath, with the safety then taking the deep coverage. No safety did that time, so Spencer got undeserved blame.

That was a rare mistake by the 49er safeties. Overall, Tony Parrish has been excellent, which is no surprise because he’s been an All-Pro in previous seasons and also has won the Len Eshmont award that is given each year to the 49ers’ most inspirational player.

The real surprise is Mike Adams, a free agent who had earned a chance to start at free safety even before erstwhile starter Rumph was injured. Corny as it sounds, hard work and perseverance can pay off.

THE BEST that can be said for the 49ers offense was that it held the ball long enough – the 49ers actually won the time-of-possession battle – to keep the Bucs offense off the field and give their own defense a chance to rest. The 49ers defense has collapsed in the fourth quarter at times this season because of fatigue, but the defenders had plenty left in the tank for yesterday’s fourth quarter.

The 49ers got a huge break when the Bucs’ Simeon Rice was sent home Sunday morning, apparently for missing a meeting. Offensive tackle Anthony Clement had his best game as a 49er, but he was blocking reserve defensive ends Dewayne White and Ellis Wyms, a huge falloff from Rice. Harris, whose strength is run blocking, also had his best game. Kevan Barlow gained 101 yards behind their blocking, and the offensive line was able to control the ball in a fourth-quarter drive which used up more than five minutes and ended with Joe Nedney’s fifth field goal. That was especially impressive because the Bucs were putting as many as nine men up near the line of scrimmage, and backup quarterback Cody Pickett threw only one pass – completed – on the drive.

Once again, though, we were reminded why Nolan felt he had to take a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the draft. Tim Rattay wasn’t doing the job early in the season, so he was traded. With Alex Smith out of the game with an ankle injury, the supposedly improved Ken Dorsey started, but Dorsey looked like the same quarterback he’s always been, which is not a compliment. Now, he’s out with an injury, and his NFL future is not bright.

Pickett, who took over when Dorsey was injured, is the people’s choice. I’ve known that from the e-mails I’ve received from readers, and it was confirmed by the reception he got from the fans at the game.

He’s an exceptional athlete, and not just as a quarterback. Just before entering the game at quarterback yesterday, he blocked on a punt and then tackled the returner. In an earlier time, players often went both ways – Hall-of-Famers Frank Gifford (halfback) and Bob Waterfield (quarterback) were also excellent defensive backs – but it’s unheard of in today’s game for a quarterback to also be a special teams standout.

Pickett hadn’t had a chance to work with the first team in practice, so 49ers’ offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy wisely chose not to let him risk an interception that could have cost the 49ers the game. With Smith still hobbling, Pickett may well be the starter against the Giants on Sunday, which means he’ll work with the first team in practice. So, we may be able to get a better read on his potential as an NFL quarterback.

NOTHING THAT happened yesterday changed the reality of this season: The 49ers will still be battling with the Houston Texans for the first pick in the 2006 draft.

Yesterday’s game may have changed the reality for the future, though. This season is all about building a team for the future, and laying the foundation depends on the team staying together and playing hard, even as the losses mount up. Yesterday showed that may be possible, after all.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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